Learning centers provide the materials and just enough structure for children to explore topics on their own and in a variety of ways, and make the experiences accessible to children with varied needs and learning styles. The following collection of learning center ideas are from PLT’s Environmental Experiences for Early Childhood guide. These learning centers can be used to support all three Treemendous Science! teaching levels. Offer as many of these centers as your time, budget, and space allow. Leave them in place, add to them, and adapt them throughout the exploration of the topic.
Treemendous Science! Learning Centers
- Build a “Handy” Tree Mural
Materials: large sheets of paper; finger paints, such as brown, green, and red (vary for the season); paintbrushes; scissors
Create tree models using hands and fingers. Have each child place one arm, palm side up, on the table. With a paintbrush, have the child paint the inside of his or her forearm, hand, and fingers brown. Help the children press their hands and arms onto paper. Invite them to add leaves, flowers, fruits, and seeds to their trees by dipping their fingertips into different colors of paint. Roots can be added by painting fingers brown and making prints underneath the bottoms of their trees. Invite adults (e.g., principal, janitor, parents, etc.) to make trees too! When the painting is dry, cut out the trees, and create a forest mural by hanging the pictures together on a wall. Point out to the children how the “trees” are different shapes and sizes, just like people.
- Make Me a Tree
Materials: butcher paper, crayons
Lay a large piece of butcher paper (about 6 feet long) on a flat surface. Then ask a child to lie down in the middle of the paper with his or her legs together and arms spread out. Trace around the child. Do the same for the other children. Then invite the children to turn the outlines of themselves into trees by making their feet “grow” into roots and by adding limbs, twigs, leaves, and seeds.
- Frame Your Favorite Tree
Materials: photograph of each child with his or her favorite tree; cardboard picture mats (inside opening equal to dimensions of photograph); natural objects (e.g., grass, leaves, seeds, twigs); glue
Provide picture mats and glue. Encourage the children to decorate the frames with natural objects they have collected. If possible, do this art activity outdoors where children are free to find natural objects to add to their frames as needed. Place a photograph of the child with his or her favorite tree in the frame.
- Pound Leaf Pictures
Materials: hard wood surface; hammer with flat head; paper towels; paper or fabric (muslin) for printing; variety of leaves
Gently hammering a leaf releases its chlorophyll and makes a print of the leaf on cloth or paper. Layer a thick smooth board, a paper towel, the fabric or paper on which you want to print, a leaf, and another paper towel, all one on top of another. Begin by pounding lightly to release the color without bursting the plant cells to pieces. Lift up a corner and peek at the impression. Continue hammering if necessary. Display the pictures on a bulletin board and out of direct sunlight.
- Paint with Pussy Willows
Materials: pussy willows, paint (watercolor or tempera), paper
Collect or purchase pussy willows, and use them as brushes with watercolors or tempera paints. You can hot-glue a pussy willow on a pencil-size twig. The children will need to be gentle painters!
- Do Art Outside
Materials: Cardboard boxes, washable paints, brushes, and water cups
Make outdoor easels by taping paper to the four sides of large cardboard boxes, on fences, or on trees. Take out paints, brushes, and water cups, and let nature inspire the children.
- Make Bark Rubbings
Materials: large paper, tape, crayons, tree identification guides (optional)
Tape large sheets of paper to tree trunks with masking tape. Have the children rub a crayon sideways back and forth across the paper. The pattern of the bark should begin to show on the paper. Label the rubbings with the real or made-up names of the trees. Talk about the patterns that appear. Ask: How are the patterns different? How are the patterns the same? Use the rubbings in collages or frame them as artwork.
- Paint with Tree-textured Paint
Materials: paper, paintbrushes, tempera paint, textured tree products (sawdust, leaves, coffee grounds or tea leaves, spices, etc.)
Add sawdust, crumbled leaves, coffee grounds, nutmeg, or cinnamon to tempera paint. Make a masterpiece!
- Sort Tree Parts
Materials: natural items, sorting boxes or bins
Collect a variety of items from trees (e.g., fruits, leaves, seeds, and twigs). Label boxes with words and pictures of each tree part. Encourage the children to sort the items into the boxes. Ask: If you were a tree, what kind of seeds would you have? What is your favorite part of the tree?
- Compare and Label Special Trees
Materials: tree identification guides, leaf samples from different tree species
Provide field guides and pressed leaves from the children’s favorite trees. Encourage the children to compare the drawings in the field guides with the pressed leaves. As the trees are identified, post the leaves on a bulletin board and label them. Labels can be the common names of trees (e.g., basswood) or names the children have given them (e.g., heart-leaved tree).
- Enjoy a Sneak Peek of Spring
Materials: sample flower cuttings (suggestions provided below), sharp knife, water, vase
You can “force” some trees and shrubs to flower earlier by taking cuttings indoors. Apple, forsythia, maple, oak, and pussy willows are good choices. Cut off small twigs with a sharp knife or pruner, and put them in water immediately. Change the water frequently, and recut the stem ends if needed. Compare the twigs on the Discovery Table with the trees and shrubs outside. Ask: Which do you think will open first, the buds on the twigs we brought inside or the buds on the twigs outside? Which buds do you think will be flower buds? Which buds do you think have leaves inside them? Why do you think some trees have big flowers and some trees have little flowers?
- Dissect Buds
Materials: collected twigs that contain large buds, plastic knives, magnifying lenses and boxes
Collect fallen or pruned twigs that have large buds (e.g., buckeye, hickory, poplar, rhododendron, tulip tree, and some viburnums). Using plastic knives, encourage the children to take the buds apart. Magnifying lenses will help them see the insides. Use a sharp knife to cut through a few buds, and then put them in magnifying boxes.
Math and Manipulatives
- Build a Flannel Board Tree
Materials: different colors of flannel material (available at craft stores), flannel board, tree part patterns (optional), scissors
Make flannel board tree pieces for children to put together. Provide a variety of sizes and shapes for branches, fruits, leaves, roots, seeds, and trunks to build interesting trees. Make flannel board labels for each part. After the children have experimented with the tree parts, invite them to write a recipe for a tree. Using the tree part labels, children can decide how many of each part is needed to make a tree (e.g., 1 trunk, 5 branches, 7 roots, etc.).
- Play a Memory Game with Leaves
Materials: collection of diverse, pressed leaves, card stock, laminator
Make two sets of pressed leaves mounted on card stock. Label one set with the trees’ names, and laminate both sets. Encourage the children to sort and match the leaves or to play a memory game by themselves or with a friend.
- Compare Twigs
Materials: collection of diverse twigs, ribbon to tie bundles
Use twigs collected on walks for counting, matching, seriating, and sorting. Ask: What are some things that are the same or different? Which twigs do you think came from the same kind of tree? Encourage the children to sort the twigs by number of buds or length. Ask: How did you decide what to look at when you were sorting the twigs? When done, make twig bundles by securing an assortment of different twigs together with ribbon or fabric strips. Send the bundles home for the children to share and explore with their parents.
- Sort Tree Seeds
Materials: variety of large seed (examples provided below), discarded shoe boxes, scissors
Safety! – Be aware of any food allergies, dietary needs, or choking hazards for the children in your class.
Purchase or collect a variety of large seeds (e.g., acorns, almonds, buckeyes, basswood seeds, hickory nuts, maple seeds, pecans, sweet gum pods, or walnuts). Place the seeds in shoe boxes that have a hole cut in the short side so that students can reach in and feel enclosed items without seeing them. Challenge the children to put a collection of seeds into the box and to sort them by touch only. They can remove the box lid to examine the sorted piles. This activity can also be done with assorted evergreen cones instead.
- Experiment with Sandpaper
Materials: sandpaper samples, wood samples, gloves for students
Provide different grades of sandpaper and different kinds of wood, tree branches, or tree cookies. Have the children use the sandpaper on different pieces of wood. Provide work gloves if splinters are a concern. Ask: Which kind of sandpaper do you think will make the wood the smoothest? What happened when you rubbed the sandpaper on the wood? How smooth can you make the different kinds of wood? Can you feel a difference?
- Pretend to be Dancing Leaves
Materials: fall colored scarves or streamers, music with different tempos, speaker
Provide colorful scarves or streamers for children to imitate falling, swirling, and dancing leaves. Ask: If you were a leaf, how would you move to the music as you fell from the tree? After dancing, invite the children to talk about how they felt moving to the music. Leave the props and music in the dramatic play center for children to continue the experience.
- Play in a Tree House
Materials: old sheet or blanket, variety of stuffed animals and props for nest-building and feeding
Drape an old sheet or blanket over a table or play equipment. Supply stuffed animals, puppets, nest-building material, and plastic insects, eggs, and food. Ask: If you were an animal and the weather became cold and rainy, where would you go? What would it feel like to sleep in a squirrel’s nest? Can you show me? If you were a bird, what kind of food could you find in a tree?
- Provide gardening tools, pots, soil, and seeds for planting.
- Build shelters using branches and twigs of various sizes.
- Explore stumps.
- Collect different samples of soil found around your school or park.
- Care for yard and street trees by mulching and watering.
- Balance on downed logs.
- Play shadow tag by touching or “tagging” a shadow when a cue is called or music stops.
- Make maple seed noses , acorn cap whistles, and dandelion crowns. Think of ways to play with trees and plants!
- Put out a rain gauge.
- During a dry time, water the trees in the play yard and along the sidewalk.
- Mulch the trees in your play yard.
- Move art outside on a comfortable day.
- Stand by a tree and use your body to make the shape of the tree. Move on to the next tree and repeat.
- Provide pots, soil, and seeds so the children can plant in a small garden or in containers.
- Plants that grow quickly, like marigolds, peas, onion sets, and radishes, are good choices for eager gardeners.
- Pull up tree seedlings that have sprouted on the lawn, and plant them in pots.
- Provide stethoscopes or paper cups without bottoms for listening to trees. During early spring, you can hear the sap moving up and down the trunk. The best time to listen is on a warm day that follows a cool night.
- Challenge the children to find nest-building materials in the play area (e.g., dried grass, leaves, mud, and twigs) and to build bird or squirrel nests.
- Provide leftover scraps of yarn, string, and fabric for the children to cut into short lengths (4–6 inches), and place around the play area. Put piles of small twigs and dry grass in open areas visible from indoors. Watch to see if the bits and pieces disappear over time. If you use bright colors, you might be lucky enough to see your “gifts” in neighborhood birds’ nests.
- Turn over your compost pile.
- Look for nests in trees. Encourage the children to find nest-building materials (e.g., dried grass, leaves, mud, and twigs) and to build bird or squirrel nests.
- Invite the children to find twigs and turn them into magic wands. The children can gently touch things in nature and spread spring’s magic. Be sure to explain that they must watch and wait for the magic of spring to happen!
- Have the children put on their mud boots and let them jump in puddles.
- Walk barefoot in a safe place.
- Provide a variety of textured squares. Encourage the children to look for something outdoors that feels similar.
- Fill a sandbox or raised bed box with sawdust, wood chips, or wood shavings. Encourage the children to hide natural objects in the box and then search for them with small garden tools.
- Encourage tree hugs!
- Make rubbings of bricks, buildings, sidewalks, and trees.
- Lie in the grass and feel the earth under your backs. Close your eyes and describe how the air or wind feels on your face.